Almost a month after city inspectors initially shuttered a downtown high-rise, residents of the apartment building are still barred from returning home.
The Grace Place Apartments, at 205 N. Fourth St., have undergone a series of repairs in recent weeks to fix critical safety issues, said Amy Vu, a spokesperson for the Richmond Department of Fire and Emergency Services.
However, as of Friday afternoon, the building’s faulty elevators had not passed an inspection, a prerequisite for residents to move back in. The delay has meant longer motel stays and more frustration for 42 households displaced last month. They were given only a few hours to pack at the time.
One, Jesse Williams, said he is without medical supplies he needs. They are stuck in his eighth-floor apartment with the rest of his possessions. He has returned to the building several times over the past month, and said he asked staff to bring the items down. They have refused, he said.
“It ain’t fair to me. I don’t care how you look at it,” Williams said. “I’m getting fed up.”
Stanley Thompson, the building’s manager, did not return calls seeking comment Friday. Calls to Thompson and the building’s leasing office have not been returned since the building’s closure.
As of this week, Vu said residents like Williams were still in motel rooms or other temporary housing provided by the property manager, the city’s Department of Social Services and local nonprofits that aid people experiencing homelessness.
A provision of Virginia’s Landlord and Tenant Act requires landlords to find “comparable” housing for tenants who are temporarily displaced for planned repairs.
However, it would be up to a court to determine if that requirement applies in this situation, with the building’s evacuation and subsequent emergency repairs ordered by the city, said Marty Wegbreit, director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
“Assuming there is an obligation to rehouse, that obligation is for a comparable unit—that’s the theory,” Wegbreit said. “In practice, where do you find comparable units, especially when you have a low-vacancy market like Richmond’s, let alone affordable, low-income housing units?”
Last month, an anonymous complaint prompted city code enforcement inspectors and the fire marshal to inspect the nearly century-old high-rise that houses 58 affordable rentals. In addition to unsafe elevators, they found a shoddy fire suppression system, broken fire panel, damage to one of the building’s structural walls, and various plumbing, sanitation and safety issues that violated city code.
Since then, the building’s property management, Maryland-based Residential ONE, has fixed the fire safety issues, Vu said. A structural engineer determined there is “no major structural damage” to the building, she said.
Cleaners have also sanitized the building, where inspectors found trash and human feces, according to a notice dated Oct. 28 listing the code violations. The city sent it to the building owner, East Grace Street Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of Franklin Capital Group, and provided it to the Richmond Times-Dispatch in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Williams and other tenants who lived in the building have said those conditions were common there.
The city gave the building owner until Nov. 22 to make all repairs, according to the notice. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $2,500 per day, per violation, and criminal charges, the notice stated.
A follow-up elevator inspection is tentatively planned for Monday, Vu said.
In another development, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority is in talks with the current owner about acquiring the apartment building, according to information the agency’s staff shared with the RRHA Board of Commissioners Real Estate Committee this week.
At a meeting of the panel, members of the committee held a closed session about the building, under a provision in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act law that permits public bodies to bar the public from listening to deliberations that could “adversely affect” negotiating strategy or bargaining position. An RRHA spokesperson declined to share details about the talks, citing the closed discussion.
RRHA holds a ground lease on the property where the building stands and helped facilitate its most recent renovation through a bond issuance about a decade ago.
Barrett Hardiman, the board’s vice chairman who heads the Real Estate Committee, said the housing authority is doing its due diligence before determining next steps. Buying the building would require the full board to sign off. Preserving the centrally located affordable housing is a priority for the city and agency, he added.
“I would not want to see a building where there is affordable housing lose that affordable housing,” Hardiman said. “We’re going to support what the best option is.”